“Clean eating” prioritizes eating whole, unprocessed foods. Although the concept of clean eating is relatively new in mainstream diet culture, the principles of this lifestyle are not.
Clean eating dates back to the natural health food movement of the 1960s, which marked a shift away from processed foods in favor of whole foods. Over time, the term “clean eating” landed itself in gyms and fitness centers, where it gained popularity among bodybuilders and athletes. In recent years, however, clean eating has gained momentum in mainstream America, inspiring a new generation to adopt a clean eating lifestyle.
As a simple and effective way to boost your overall health, clean eating is a flexible lifestyle that can be adapted to fit any kind of routine — even yours. Here’s how.
Choose whole foods over processed foods and additives.
When it comes to clean eating, whole foods—particularly seasonal fruits and vegetables—are given top priority. Some examples of whole foods include plant-based foods, including nuts, vegetables and fruits, and animal-based items such as meat, fish, and poultry. Processed foods, or anything that can be found in a can, box, package, or bag, should be avoided. Although there are a few exceptions to this rule (i.e. a bag of fresh cauliflower), the majority of your diet should be fresh.
Because the body cannot reasonably metabolize artificial additives—artificial colors, preservatives, and flavorings—are considered taboo in clean eating. When grocery shopping, be sure to pay attention to food labels. Rule of thumb: Avoid purchasing anything that sounds complicated, processed, or carries E numbers, which are codes for substances and food additives.
Additionally, avoid refined carbs, such as white flour. After processing, the vitamins, minerals, and fibers in flour are largely lost. (Consuming refined carbohydrates can also leave you feeling hungry.) If you’re having a hard time ditching bread, try organic whole-grain bread or bake your own with spelled wholemeal flour. Pasta and rice are also allowed—but opt for whole-grain versions.
Incorporate carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into every meal.
Most people get the necessary amount of carbohydrates and fat, but we often struggle to incorporate protein, especially at breakfast and lunch. Protein is a key muscle-builder, and eating protein throughout the day can curb cravings by making you feel full longer. Making simple swaps—like choosing eggs over cereal or Greek yogurt over regular yogurt—can help you get more protein without disrupting your routine.
One of the best ways to incorporate protein, carbohydrates, and fats into every meal is to meal prep. Prepping bulk meals for the week helps ensure that you have fresh, healthy, protein-rich options every day—even when you’re at the office or short on time in the morning.
Meal prepping can also help you avoid making unhealthy choices out of desperation. For example, knowing that you have a healthy meal already prepared at home can deter you from stopping at a fast-food restaurant on your way home for a quick snack.
Practice intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating can help you make better choices, form a healthier relationship with food, and even improve your mental health. In a study by the National Institutes of Health, women following an intuitive eating program experienced decreases in binge-eating behaviors, along with significant improvements in mental well-being.
Intuitive eating involves paying attention to fullness and hunger cues, which helps to decrease the chances of overeating and overcome unhealthy habits like binge eating. Essentially, the idea is that you should eat when you feel hungry and stop eating when you feel full.
For some people, eating intuitively requires relearning how to trust the body’s instincts, which requires distinguishing between physical and emotional hunger. While physical hunger builds gradually and can be satisfied by eating any food, emotional hunger is driven by feelings like sadness, loneliness, and boredom.
Clean eating is all about knowing what’s in your food and supplying your body with the nutrients it needs. The process of transitioning to a clean diet doesn’t happen overnight, and exceptions are OK. Maybe you have a cheat day, or you’ve decided to stick to the 80-20 rule. Fast food, sweets, and drinking with colleagues are still allowed when clean eating is your main priority.
Ultimately, to successfully transition to clean eating, you’ll need to listen to your body and give yourself time to adjust to a new lifestyle.